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Painted Black

By Ben Swift

“When evil justifies itself by posturing as morality, God becomes the devil and the devil, God. That exchange makes one impervious to reason.” (Zacharias)

It would be hard to believe that anyone could deny the fact that evil has a real presence in this world. One doesn’t have to travel far through the pages of history to find extraordinarily cruel cases of evil.

Take communist Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, for example. In his time of political leadership an estimated 1.5 to 2 million Cambodians died of starvation, execution, disease or exhaustion. Evil however is at its most obvious in cases like these but disturbingly, it can be found lurking in the hearts of every human being; the inherited seed of our most ancient ancestors.

The Rolling Stones song, ‘Paint It Black’, reflectively portrays the darker side of the human heart, continually being blackened by the evil we are all exposed to on a daily basis. Consider the following key lines:

‘I look inside myself and see my heart is black…..It’s not easy facing up when your whole world is black.’

This is why Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias in his book, Deliver Us from Evil, suggests that evil is not just where blood has been spilled but rather it is in the self-absorbed human heart.

Many theologians and philosophers have struggled and wrestled with the question of where evil came from. In other words, who or what was the author of evil?

Theology suggests that sin came into the world through one sin but the question still remains, how was this able to occur when all of creation as described in Genesis was declared to be good by the all-powerful and loving Creator Himself?

Did God create evil? Did God intend evil? How else could evil have made its way into creation in order to bring it down?

While it’s understood that sin came through one human act of rebellion towards God, the temptation to sin in this way was prompted by Satan (Genesis 3). For this to be true, evil must have already existed in Satan. It would make sense then to learn a little more about who Satan is. Jesus uses the following description of him:

“He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44)

Satan, along with other fallen angels whom he leads, were cast out of Heaven – God’s realm – to await final judgement. The mind of Satan and all his demon allies are permanently set to oppose God, goodness, truth, the kingdom of Christ, and the welfare of human beings. He has real but limited power and as Calvin once phrased, drags his chains wherever he goes and can never hope to overcome God. (Packer)

Despite Satan being completely at odds with God, he is not like God. Their opposing natures cannot be thought of as dualistic, yin-yang type entities. Only God is eternal in that only He has always existed. Satan is His creation and all of His creation was created by and for Himself. For if Satan wasn’t created by God, then by who? And if there was another all-powerful creator responsible for Satan, there would also need to be a realm within which God is not in control. According to Scriptures that cannot be true.

“For by Him all things were created: the things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by Him and for Him.” (Colossians 1: 16)

Importantly, “Everything created by God is good.” (1 Timothy 4:4) and “This is the message we have heard from Him and declare to you: God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5)

As the Scriptures testify, God made everything good according to His perfect light but something went terribly wrong. Somehow darkness made its way into creation and there is only one legitimate explanation.

If the perfect loving relationship that has eternally existed in the Trinity is to be reflected in mankind back to the God whose image he bears, freedom to love must be allowed to exist. For without the freedom to love, love is meaningless; simply an act of predetermined obedience. When it comes to freedom, however, there must be an available flip side. It is through this freedom that love can become hate, obedience can become rebellion, light can become darkness. And so the story unfolded and continues to play out to this day. No fallen creature is exempt from the aftershock of Satan’s fall from God’s presence into ours, and the day that human beings tried to assume the position of becoming their own God.

Did God create Satan to be evil? Absolutely not! His evil arose from within; from the heart of the father of all lies.

Did God create human beings to enact evil in order to bring about His purposes? No! But He certainly can and has used what man has intended for evil to bring about His purposes.

In the end we can’t shift the blame for the sin that we personally bring into this world. We, as free human beings, have the ability to make choices and must live with the consequences of the wrong decisions of both ourselves and others. Here the relationship between evil, sin and suffering become painfully apparent; world history highlighting time and again what twisted hearts are capable of enacting even to the point of crucifying the Son of God.

It is only at this point, when we come to realise the depths to which evil has become intertwined with the hearts of humanity that we can fully understand the incomprehensible love and mercy shown by Christ as He paid the price for our sin, crushing evil and defeating Satan’s power once and for all through His death and resurrection. Certainly God is not responsible for evil but rather responsible for the unique hope of Christianity in that we can join with Jesus in saying, “It is finished!”

Fear

By Ben Swift

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10)

Anyone who has ever stood in close proximity to a great male lion – the king of the beasts – and looked into its majestic, yet terrifying face would awaken a sense of fear of what such a beast is capable. The roar of a lion can send thunderous vibrations through the ground on which you stand, indeed through your very being. To come face to face with a hungry lion in the wild would elicit such fear that any normal human being could only freeze and be subject to the desires of this beast. Perhaps this explains why the lion was chosen by C.S. Lewis as the character for Aslan.

While Lewis’ fictional character of Aslan the lion does provide us with some powerful imagery into the awesomeness and majesty of God, we would do well to consider that creatures such as the lion are just that; creatures.

In terms of fear then, are we Christians living in today’s world in danger of losing our sense of who God really is? Are we so blinded by theologies that allow us to create God into whatever image we desire, losing our fear of Him that is far greater than any beast?

Consider the following words from Jesus to His disciples:

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in Hell.” (Matthew 10:28)

Surely true wisdom is to allow these words to penetrate deep within our understanding and consciousness. Who is man and who is God? Isn’t this the question of all questions? We need to continually ponder it, relying on the Holy Spirit to hold us to the truth that exists in its answer. The answer however, should not be sought simply philosophically or scientifically but theologically through what God has revealed to us about Himself. It all begins and ends with Christ as through His living Word the nature of the Triune God is revealed.

“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my father as well. From now on, you do know Him and have seen Him.” (John 14: 6)

“Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14: 9b)

If we consider the purpose of humanity as revealed in the Scriptures to be to live as image bearers of Christ and therefore to reflect the nature of our Creator back into the world, it would make sense to hold a healthy fear tied to a true understanding of the Creator and His creation. But is this the reality for the church of today, or even for those who claim to follow Christ?

We certainly don’t need to venture very far to see that the Church today does not consistently reflect the nature of God as revealed in Christ. One of the basic principles in reading and interpreting the Word is to interpret Scripture with Scripture but what about interpreting our Christian lives under the same lens. If the Christian life is reflecting cultural norms rather than standing apart from them, surely alarm bells should be ringing?

So why is it that we consistently live as though it is the world we have to fear rather than the One who created the world, holding sovereign power over it? Surely it must come down to human arrogance. C.S. Lewis cleverly puts it in these words:

“According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride….It was through pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.”[1]

Pride or arrogance is easily developed and expressed as it comes so naturally to our fallen nature. Perhaps the most effective cure for this diseased state of mind is to be subject to an inescapable reality check, one that breathes life into our fear once more. Like the lion’s breath-taking roar, God can take us to this place as we listen to His voice speak through the Scriptures. The book of Job provides us with perhaps the most humbling starting point. Consider the words of God to Job as he was reminded of the answer to the ever important question of God and man:

“Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it?” (Job 38: 2-5)

What if God is asking all of us these questions? Listen to His voice. Brace yourself like a human because you are not God and He alone is all powerful. Like Job, all who claim to follow Christ must come to the same understanding of Job. That is, we must humbly develop a healthy fear of God, echoing Job’s response.

“I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. You asked, “Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?” Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said, “Listen now and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.” My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42: 2-6)

Surely to know God is to love but also fear God; to listen to His voice; to shed our arrogance and to follow Christ in humility. Here lies true wisdom, foolishness to the world.

[1] Lewis. C.S., Mere Christianity, (C.S. Lewis Pte. Ltd., 1952) p. 69

Eyes Wide Open

By Ben Swift

“I don’t need no one to tell me about heaven, I look at my daughter, and I believe. I don’t need no proof, when it comes to God and truth, I can see the sunset and I perceive.” (Lyrics from ‘Heaven’ by Live)

Despite the terrible things of this world, there is an undeniable beauty that most certainly exists around every corner we turn, under every rock we overturn, even in the most terrifying aspects of nature. While it is easy to be drawn towards a focus on the darker tones of life, hugely influenced by the bombardment of the press in all its forms, we must not lose sight of the overwhelming beauty that has been gifted us by the Creator God through what has been spoken into being.

‘The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork.’ (Psalm 19:1)

When you consider the complexity of creation, it doesn’t matter at what level you enter it. With eyes wide open one cannot help but be awestruck. The human being is a case in point, each individual person made unique through the process of meiosis, each cell carrying with it a genetic code reflecting an individual melting pot of family traits ensuring each of us as a one of a kind, even to the point of our fingerprints. Who could even begin to calculate the number of fingerprint patterns that must have existed throughout all of time, let alone the number of unique patterns represented in snowflakes. And yet the Bible speaks of a God who knows us so intimately that he has numbered the very hairs on our heads.

What’s also incredible is that God’s revelation to His creation would not be possible without the gift of perception. Have you ever wondered why it is that any of us wonder at all? Why is it that we are drawn to the colourful palette of the setting sun, the contrasting blues of the ocean or the soft, white fur of the baby seal? Humankind has certainly been given a gift when it comes to reflecting on beauty and meaning and the source of it all.

Our ability to reflect the creative nature of our God has enabled us to create all sorts of tools for investigating creation at a deeper level. Consider the evolution of the microscope and our ability to understand the nature of cells including the role of DNA as our genetic blueprint. On the other hand, consider the telescope and its ability to open our eyes to what is only the beginning of the vastness of space. Our ability and artistic ingenuity has allowed us to not only reflect on the here and now but to capture it on film, opening up access to areas we personally may never have travelled to or even dreamed of.

Perhaps one of the greatest films to capture and invoke a sense of awe for the natural world was ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’.[1] Sean O’Conner, a photographer in the film made the following memorable quote when sharing a rare view of a snow leopard through the lens of his camera:

“If I like a moment, I mean me personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of a camera. I just want to stay in it. Right there…right here…To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind the walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the meaning of life.”

The character Sean O’Conner certainly resonates with many of us and he comes close to the truth but fails to go the full distance by defining the meaning of life in the absence of the source of life.

So what does this all mean for the human? Is it enough to simply take hold of the gift of perception and reflection, drawing no further meaning from it other than appreciation?

N.T. Wright suggests, “We must acknowledge that beauty, whether in the natural order or within human creation, is sometimes so powerful that it evokes our very deepest feelings of awe, wonder, gratitude and reverence.” But importantly, “The beauty of the natural world is, at best, the echo of a voice, not the voice itself.”[2]

The Apostle Paul understood this well.

‘For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.’ (Romans 1:20)

God has indeed revealed Himself to every human being. A general revelation that should never be regarded as simply ‘general’ in that it is so incredible, so humbling and awe-inspiring that it surely points to a Creator beyond anything we can comprehend. Theologian J.I. Packer suggests that God in His general revelation, “actively discloses aspects of Himself to all human beings, so that in every case failure to thank and serve the Creator in righteousness is sin against knowledge, and denials of having received this knowledge should not be taken seriously.”[3]

Surely God the Creator is not a hidden God in that He has revealed Himself to us. While we cannot know all of God, creation has His fingerprints all over it, from the human being to the venous fly trap. We simply need to approach life with our eyes wide open. Let’s not stop there however, but humbly acknowledge God for who He is, worshiping the Creator, not the creation, and letting creation point us to Christ in whom God has been truly revealed.

 

 

[1] Thurber, James and Conrad, Steven. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. (Harcourt, Brace and Company, United States, 2013).

[2] Wright, Tom. Simply Christian. (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, 2006.) p.38.

[3] Packer, J.I. Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs. (Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois, 1993). p. 9.

The Gift of Christmas

By Ben Swift

Liquid and lungs swiftly part ways

As the Christ child gasps for breath in the world that He made

The Word that breathed life into all that has been

Now lay fully human that God may truly be seen

For knowing the Father is in knowing the Son

A divinely-gifted revelation wrapped in Trinitarian love

A frail, helpless child, His little eyes first awake

The eyes of a perfect saviour, born to suffer our rightful fate.

Grace Story

By Ben Swift

You’ve always been there

You watched the pendulum of time unwind

Before the bells could sing their chime

Man’s Christ bearing image forged within your mind

A revelation intimately signed

Creation’s gift of breath and beauty intertwined

But breaking your heart, man’s sin denied

The true place of man and of God only divine

Yet in grace, Father, Son and Spirit cried

Let our perfect love shine its’ Christmas light

In Christ man can truly be justified

As Satan’s skull is crushed forever from life

Sadness and the tears of man will be wiped from their eyes

Now eternally loved and sanctified

In the heavenly dimensions of God his sheep will reside

In fields of gold, beholding the Tree of Life.

Between The Trees

By Ben Swift

“But we shouldn’t be concerned about trees purely for material reasons, we should also care about them because of the little puzzles and wonders they present us with.” (Wohlleben)

Several years ago while studying for a Bachelor of Science, I needed to narrow my interests and choose what discipline would become the main focus of my study. Looking back I find it interesting – although not surprising – that I was most drawn to subjects in the field of botany. The life of trees and indeed all plant life can be fascinating and far less removed from our own lives than many people would care to contemplate. The life of trees have the potential to provide many profound lessons as they illustrate ever changing seasons of life and death, often forming significant links to memories of times past. In fact we are first given a taste of the significance of our botanical friends in the beginning.

God said, “Let the earth put forth grass, seed producing plants, and fruit trees, each yielding its own kind of seed-bearing fruit, on the earth”; and that is how it was, the earth brought forth grass, plants each yielding its own kind of seed, and trees each producing its own kind of seed-bearing fruit; and God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:11-12)

While humanity, created in God’s image and likeness, is recognised as being the pinnacle of creation, let’s not forget that God’s creation of the entire cosmos was said to be good, a claim from the Creator himself that includes botanical life. One may ask, “Why is this important?”

It turns out that human beings are not only to be sustained physically by God’s botanical creation, but are to learn from the many lessons revealed to us as nature and theology combine, pointing us to important truths.

Pastor Rob Bell once released a short film in his ‘Nooma’ series concerning life between the trees. As Bell digs his shovel into a strip of soil where he proceeds to plant two trees, he suggests that when we acknowledge ourselves as created beings in God’s world, we all find ourselves living between two trees. It is here that the trees metaphorically symbolize firstly Eden, God’s original garden paradise, and the beautiful, life-sustaining garden described in Revelation in which the Tree of Life exists for all who are in Christ. But what will our lives between the trees be like? What will be our story?

Where human kind was once cut off from the life-sustaining garden called Eden, falling under the curse of Adam’s legacy, we find that it is a tree of another kind that becomes the crucial tree in the human rescue story.

For it is written, ‘The Messiah redeemed us from the curse pronounced in the Torah by becoming cursed on our behalf; for the Tanakh says, “Everyone who hangs from a stake comes under a curse.” (Galatians 3:13)  So it was that Jesus Christ, God’s perfect Son, took upon himself the curse of Adam and his offspring as he hung from a tree, crucified for our sake. Through this act of love, God’s grace can be a part of our story as we live between the trees.

Just prior to the nailing of our Saviour to the tree, he was subject to the torturous act of being crowned with a twisted circle of thorns. The significance of this should not be overlooked. It has been suggested that thorns and thistles are a sign to us of God’s covenantal curse. When Adam sinned against God in Eden, the Lord said to him, “…Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you.” (Genesis 3:17-18) Once again, a botanical reminder of what has been achieved through Christ as he took on our curse in more ways than one.

As we read through and contemplate Scriptures, we see that Jesus himself invites us, time and again, to reflect on life and truth using plant life to simplify the profound.

As the stresses of this life begin to dominate and darken our stories, consider the comforting words of Christ: “Think about the wild irises, and how they grow. They neither work nor spin thread; yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed as beautifully as one of these. If this is how God clothes grass, which is alive in the field today and thrown in the oven tomorrow, how much more will he clothe you!” (Luke 12:27-28)

And then there are times where Christ, Creator of all things, refers to himself as a plant for the sake of our ability to understand our deep need to be rooted or grafted in Him.

“I am the vine and you are the branches. Those who stay united with me, and I with them, are the ones who bear much fruit; because apart from me you can’t do a thing. Unless a person remains united with me, he is thrown away like a branch and dries up. Such branches are gathered and thrown into the fire, where they are burned up.” (John 15:5-8)

Interestingly, following the death and resurrection of Jesus, the first person to encounter the risen Christ identified or mistook him as ‘The Gardener’. She [Mary] turned around and saw Yeshua [Jesus] standing there, but she didn’t know it was he. Yeshua said to her, “Lady why are you crying? Whom are you looking for?” Thinking it was the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you’re the one who carried him away, just tell me where you put him; and I’ll go and get him myself.”(John 20:14-15)

As was said in the beginning, God the Creator was pleased with His work, proclaiming it to be good at the conclusion of each working day. As many scientists – including well-known nature lover David Attenborough – attest, trees are the lungs of the earth. We are not only sustained by their ability to clean our air and produce the oxygen we need to breathe, but in their beauty and diversity, they also teach us about ourselves. Is it any wonder that God, ‘The Gardener’, uses his trees to teach his people about life in him, and therefore our own lives as we live between the trees?

Lines in the Sand

By Ben Swift

Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever in not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. (39 Articles of Religion, 1562)

The trouble with great theologians can be that they are more often than not, very convincing expositionalists, capable of taking their well-ingrained, well-educated perspectives on doctrines and persuading their audience with the backing of Scriptural exegesis and logical arguments. But what occurs when one tries to draw a line in the sand, when it comes to age-old doctrinal debates such as ‘Election’ and ‘Predestination’, is that you can on one particular day, under the tutorage of one school of thought, take out your big stick and draw your line in the sand, only to have a wave of alternative thought swiftly wash it away, preparing a fresh sandy slate for a new line.

C.S. Lewis in his book, ‘Mere Christianity’, cleverly provides his readers with a metaphor for the Christian Church. He likens the Church to a mansion containing numerous rooms, each representing alternative traditions within the one true church body. He suggests that although Christians should be encouraged to meet in the hallways for discussion and debate, they need at some point to make their home in one of the rooms in order that they grow deeper roots and establish relationships that encourage each other in their Christian lives.

Lewis’ suggestion – although wise and worth considering – becomes difficult when the desire to choose a room is hindered by conflicting internal understandings surrounding important doctrinal perspectives. This becomes a particularly strenuous wrestling match when the doctrinal truths that one would seek to align with are scattered throughout different rooms and fail to all exist in a single room.

Having grown up the son of an Anglican Minister, and having frequently moved home as an adult where I have been associated with churches from several denominations, I am reluctant at the thought of settling in just one room within Lewis’ metaphorical house, particularly when I know the room must surely exist, just not in the part of the city within which I now live.

So why is this such a struggle? Can one overthink these things? Recently whilst attending a Presbyterian Church, the Pastor in his sermon on Romans 14 emphasised Paul’s desire for Christians within a church to avoid disputes with fellow members of the church body over issues that are secondary and that don’t define the primary, central truths of the Christian Faith. While this is certainly healthy advice for the strengthening and encouragement of the Church, the problem arises as to where we draw the line in considering what to include as central, doctrinal truths. Concerns may arise that perhaps carry some importance but shouldn’t become the cause of division within the church, but which concerns fall into this category? And who decides? Of course some may be obvious to most but some may be cause for further reflection.

“Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.” (Romans 14:19)

Let us take for example the sacrament of Holy Communion. In terms of how often The Lord’s Supper is celebrated throughout the year, churches aligning with a Reformed tradition may show less concern for frequency than churches aligning with Lutheranism. Because the line in the sand separating these two views is not the same, it becomes difficult for a Lutheran to settle in the metaphorical room of the Presbyterians in this case. Why? Brian Thomas suggests, ‘The Reformed tradition is reluctant to accept that God can, and indeed does, work through external signs to bring sinners into saving union with Christ through the Holy Spirit.’ In other words, if you align with the Lutheran perspective on Holy Communion, by being denied regular, frequent opportunities to receive The Lord’s Supper, you are in essence, being denied the promise and presence of God in the meal. This is by no means a secondary concern in this way of thinking.

When it comes to debating about the different beliefs that surround a Calvinist view of double predestination in comparison to single predestination as held by Lutherans and many other protestant Christians, it is often said that we shouldn’t become too caught up in the differences as these are secondary to the centrality of the Gospel message. This becomes a struggle however, if we consider the flow on effects of each position. While much could be and has been written about these endless debates, an important point of difference that is central comes down to the question, “Who did Christ die for?” In other words, how do we read verses of Scripture such as, “And he himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the whole world.” (1 John 2:2)

What does it mean, ‘the whole world’? Is it every human being or restricted to the ‘elect’? Are we to settle comfortably in a room that builds its understanding of who Christ died for when it sits on the wrong side of the line we’ve drawn in our understanding of the doctrine of election? Can these questions really become secondary concerns in our faith or do they in fact shape the way we interpret the Gospel message itself, the heart of the Christian Faith?

Perhaps we should be encouraged to take hold of the advice given by many biblical, evangelical scholars who suggest the following when reading and interpreting Scripture:

  1. What is the plain meaning of the text? To put it another way, without trying to read the text into a particular system of thought, what does the text actually say?
  2. Interpret Scripture with Scripture, not with any additional teaching.

As we continue in our Christian journey, seeking to draw lines in the sand that clearly define what we hold as truth, our lines may shift from time to time. It’s true we need to walk the hallways of discussion and debate as C.S. Lewis describes and hopefully, in prayerful consideration, find a room in God’s house in which we can let our roots penetrate. One thing is for certain, we who seek to live in the truth of Christ can all agree, if not always in our theology, on our humble dependence on the Trinity. Our dependence is on God and his Word. (John Stott)